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Pig-tailed Macaques of Thailand

Pig-tailed Macaques of Thailand
A northern pig-tailed macaque, Macaca leonina, thoughtfully inspects the back of its hand while grooming its fur.
A northern pig-tailed macaque thoughtfully inspects the back of its hand while grooming its fur.

Caught in shafts of light on the edge of the forest, a pig-tailed macaque is wholly absorbed as it inspects the fur on the back of its hand. The behaviour and pose are strikingly human, and reminded me of how much we have in common with our primate cousins.

This is an adult male northern pig-tailed macaque. Until quite recently pig-tailed macaques were considered one species, Macaca nemestrina, with the northern pig-tailed classed as a sub-species. However studies conducted in the early 2000s (e.g. Gippoliti, 2001) looking more closely at anatomical and behavioural differences, determined that the differences were so significant that they should be considered two distinct species. The southern pig-tailed macaque retained the original scientific name (M. nemestrina) while the northern pig-tailed macaque (previously the sub-species M. nemestrina leonina) was elevated to full species level and given the new scientific name Macaca leonina. However this change remained scientifically controversial until quite recently, and only in the past few years has it become fully accepted. The most recent (at time of writing) research on speciation of pig-tailed macaques in South East Asia, using analysis of differences in mitochondrial DNA proteins to determine molecular clock timelines, suggests that northern pig-tailed macaques separated from their southern brethren around 1.7 million years ago, and from the Siberut macaque of Western Indonesia only just over one million years ago (Abdul-Latiff and Md-Zain, 2021). Both northern and southern pig-tailed macaques occur in Thailand, with the boundary between ranges of the two species believed to lie in the Krabi region of Southern Thailand. I photographed this guy on the island of Phuket, which is very close to this boundary. The lighter colour fur, white flashes above the eyes and a thin red line running from the corner of the eye towards the ear, mark him out as distinctly a northern pig-tailed.

A northern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca leonina) looks straight ahead as it emerges from the shadows of the forest.
A northern pig-tailed macaque caught in sunlight with background in deep shadow. It can clearly be identified as a northern pig-tailed by the conspicuous white flashes above its eyes and the deep red lines running from the corner of each eye towards the ears. Phuket, Thailand.

Pig-tailed macaques are denizens of lowland and hill rainforest through much of South-East Asia. However in many locations their natural habitat is disappearing rapidly as rainforest are cleared to make way for palm oil and rubber plantations, rice paddy fields and urban development. Because of this northern pig-tailed macaques are classed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN. They are primarily fruit eating, but will also take leaves, birds eggs, insects and caterpillars, and are not averse to raiding palm oil and fruit tree plantations. Along with their relatives the crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) pig-tailed macaques have learned to live alongside humans. In Phuket the inhabit the forests and mangroves (in the case of crab-eating macaques) fringing towns and villages, especially along the eastern shores, and will often congregate in tourist areas drawn to handouts of bananas. The habituation to humans brings numerous problems. The monkeys develop a taste for the easy pickings of tourist handouts and the risks of infection and injury due to bites or scratches from fearless monkeys is significant. But for me it is the similarities between us that are the most fascinating; the strong social bonding, the way a youngster will play with a leaf or a discarded plastic drink bottle just like a small child, or the way an adult will stare at the back of his hand as if in deep introspection, and for all we know maybe he is.


Gippoliti S. 2001. on the taxonomy of Macaca nemestrina
leonina Blyth, 1863 (Primates: Cercopithecidae). Hystrix It J Mamm 12: 51–54. doi:10.4404/hystrix-12.1-4171.

Muhammad Abu Bakar Abdul-Latiff, Badrul Munir Md-Zain. 2021. Taxonomy, Evolutionary and Dispersal Events of Pig-Tailed Macaque, Macaca nemestrina (Linnaeus, 1766) in Southeast Asia with Description of a New Subspecies, Macaca nemestrina perakensis in Malaysia. Zool Stud. 2021; 60: e50. Published online 2021 Oct 8. doi: 10.6620/ZS.2021.60-50PMCID: PMC8685347

About these images

I took these shots late afternoon, on the edge of some forest on the eastern side of Phuket Island, Southern Thailand. The macaque had just climbed down from a tree and was perfectly lit by the low-angled sun, while the forest behind was in deep shade. The images were taken with a Nikon full-frame DSLR; the full size image is around 80 megapixels.

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Photography in the digital age: what’s changed?

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. © Colin Munro Colin Munro Photography

A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. Photographing light coloured fish against blue water is one of many situations where you don’t want to use auto settings. Image taken with a Nikon D610 and Nikon 20mm in an Aquatica housing, while free-diving around Nuie Island, October, 2019.

When I was young, both the World and photography was much simpler. The changes that have occurred in the World would take more than a blog to describe, so I’ll stick to those that directly affect photography. Back in the 1980s photography was film, and cameras were electro-mechanical machines – and so fairly simple to understand how they worked.  In fact, I started out in underwater photography before ever seriously using a camera on land, and the camera I started with (a second-hand, mid-1970s vintage Nikonos III) was entirely mechanical, to all intents and purposes a slightly tweaked version of the Calypso-phot designed by the Belgian engineer Jean de Wouters for Jacques Cousteau’s La Spirotechnique  company.  Incredibly simple by modern standards, my Nikonos III had the great advantage that if the camera flooded during a dive, one simply took it apart – a very easy process – washed it with fresh water, left it to dry, and put it back together.  Good luck doing that with any modern camera!  A second advantage of my mechanical Nikonos was that taking pictures underwater wasn’t that easy, especially so in the dark, turbid waters of the Firth of Clyde where I was based at that time. That may be counter-intuitive, but if you actually wanted to make money from taking photographs, then you definitely did not want it to be something that could be done with little or no skill or training.  There was no light meter, so you had to base settings on experience.  Flash lighting ( a necessity in such waters) was manual only, so you needed to know the power of the flash, estimate the total light path distance and set your camera aperture accordingly.  Add to this that a film roll contained only 36 frames, and of course film could not be changed underwater.  Once the 36 frames were used up, that was it. Dive over.  The end result of this was that there were far fewer underwater images around in the early 1980s, and a pretty low percentage of these were actually useable.  Nowadays there are estimated to be around 6 Million active SCUBA divers Worldwide (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, 2019) and a fair percentage of those are taking underwater photographs.

Many of the changes in underwater photography over the past few decades have been replicated on land. Cameras have changed from being (relatively) simple devices for creating images on film, to hugely sophisticated instruments that convert light to electrical charge and so create and store digital images.  A modern digital SLR will produce images that are sharper and contain far more detail than the best 35mm film images of just a few years ago. They are also created at a far greater rate.    A total of somewhere around 25 thousand million photographs were taken in 1980, a vast number that is true, but compare that with 2017. Around 1.2 Trillion photographs were uploaded in 2017.  Gizmodo estimates that 300 million photographs were uploaded on to Facebook alone in 2019.  This creates two immediate problems for any serious photographer. Firstly, almost all of the millions upon millions of images that are online can be viewed freely, so why should someone pay for your images?  Secondly, even if they want to pay for your images, how on earth do you get people to find them within this staggery vast array of pictures?  These are the key problems facing pretty much all photographers trying to sell images nowadays.

The problems do not end there. Most images are licensed through stock agencies to print companies, newspapers or magazines (e.g. a licence is granted to use the image for a limited period of time or set publication or print run).  Back in the 1980s this could generate a serious income.  But now, not only are there many, many more images to choose from, but the newspapers and magazines no longer make the same profit from advertising as they too have lost out to the online world.  Almost all newspapers nowadays lose money, so they are looking for the cheapest images possible much of the time.  It is not possible to come out with a scientifically robust figure, but from personal experience and talking to lots of friends and colleagues, I estimate that – for similar levels of effort – the income generated from stock image sales is between a 1/10th to 1/20th of 1980s levels.   That does not mean you cannot make money selling images through stock agencies (or directly) but it does mean you will need to work hard at it and are unlikely to make your fortune doing so.

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Monochrome for landscape is very much a personal preference. Generally it works better with high contrast images.  Nikon D610, Nikon 20mm, polarising filter. Aitutaki, October 2019.

One of the great things about modern DSLRs and mirrorless digital cameras is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of setting controls, functions, custom-settings, menus and sub-menus that allow the photographer enormous control over the appearance of the final image.  But the awful thing about modern DSLRs and mirrorless is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of settings and controls ……  so you get the idea.  Picking up a modern DSLR or mirrorless for the first time can be a very daunting experience.  Our cameras have never been better equipped to capture images that are incredibly faithful to real life or to create stunning artistic images, and yet the overwhelming majority are rarely used other than on auto mode. Fortunately, many people are motivated to get to grips with more of the full potential of the high tech piece of very expensive hardware they have paid good money for.  As a consequence many professionals, myself included at times, have made the shift across from solely taking photographs to teaching photography.

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. I prefer longer lenses for people shots.  It makes obtaining a shallow depth of field so much easier, but just as important, it provides some distance, so the subject is more likely to be behaving naturally rather than posing for the camera. Nikon D610 and Nikon 80-400mm 4.5-5.6D lens.

Teaching photography can be a rewarding process.  For one thing their is nothing like teaching any subject to make sure you really understand it yourself. Secondly, this is far from a static field.  The techniques I teach now have changed radically from those I taught  ten years ago, because cameras themselves have changed radically in that time.    Photography is a constant learning and re-learning process.  When digital photography began to supplant film based photography I deeply resented it.  Digital was precise, more automated; photochemical changes in silver halide crystals were not precise.  Film was ….. well, magic.   But the more I learned as a (initially) reluctant convert to digital, the more I appreciated that many of the skills I had learned in the previous 25 years were not redundant but actually quite transferrable and highly useful still in the digital era.  More than that, the limitations of my early mechanical cameras and the photographically challenging environment of the dark waters of Southwest Scotland meant that I was forced to really learn the basic principles of photography and how light behaved.  These basic principles still underpin photography using todays latest digital camera systems.

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. © Colin Munro

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. A wide-open lens helps isolate the subject from the background. A long lens allows nice tight shots without encroaching close on the subject and possibly disturbing her.  The arrival of a fallback on the beach was completely unexpected, but her slow progress across the sand to above the high water mark where her eggs would be laid allowed plenty of time for multiple shots to be taken.  I like this one because of the eye contact.  Nikon D610, Nikon 80-400 4-5.6D lens.


Despite all the advances, photography still remains the manipulation of light in order to obtain a sharp (mostly) and correctly exposed image on light sensitive media. The control we have in order to achieve that has expanded almost out of all recognition, but the fundamental variables: shutter duration, aperture size, ISO, lens properties and sensor dimensions are still fundamentally unchanged since the days of George Eastman’s Box Brownie developed 120 years ago.